What’s Really Going On Here? And What Should I Do About It?

It began in a February post on social media. I asked a simple, but not easy, question:

“Do you think conscious thought is possible without language?”

It was a question I had been holding up to speculation for months. The responses I received were thoughtful and genuine. One person said that there are those who read and think without an inner voice: instead their brains process with pictures, images, and emotions. Another cited the case of a deaf man in his 30’s from a rural area in Mexico who was never taught sign language. After he learned to sign, he was unable to distinctly remember things before he had language. They cited that the brain is hardware, but language is software. Another person suggested I look up the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is based upon linguistic relativity, or the claim that the structure of a language affects the speaker’s world view, or cognition, and thus people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language.

I gathered from these responses that the words we say clarify our memories, and literally shape the structure of our world view. It didn’t appear that all of our consciousness was wrapped up in our own language. We may be aware of our surroundings and feel base sensations such as hunger, pain, warmth, satisfaction, and desire, without language. Babies do that. They posses a pre-verbal, base form of consciousness. From my understanding, our pre-verbal memories are largely emotional: in which we remember the soothing feeling of being held, or the dark feeling of terror sitting alone in a crib at night. As our language develops, the specifics of our memories, and how we interpret those memories, develops. With language, we have a greater understanding of the world and our place in it, as well as a greater sense of agency. After all, when we can speak, we can speak for ourselves.

So then my question refined itself into the heart of what I was more specifically asking:

“Do you think conscientious thought is possible without language?”

That is, without language, can a person be self-aware enough to posses a concept of morality? Can they have a metric for doing what is right? Can they wade through the fog of conflicting desires within themselves, and choose how they want to behave? How much of an informed decision can they make without language? In my experience, when I didn’t have the words for what felt threatening, even my own negative emotions, I found there was a link missing in the chain. My brain couldn’t properly process the occurrences of life, both inside and outside myself. Without the language of conscientious thought – words that both defined, and interpreted the unknown – I was left with an inner environment of darkness and suffocation.

Wordless Crisis

In my early 30’s, things were going badly. I was hitting the wall in my marriage. I was losing my memories. I had no idea who I was anymore. I had only an impending sense of doom and an imperative to run away from my whole life. I felt trapped by my children in the little years of motherhood. During sessions in therapy, I talked at length about the problem: my husband, my children, the suffocation of my life. Strangely, this was the life I had always wanted. My husband still loved me. My children were lovely. But I felt the desperate need to get away from it all. My counselor would listen, then ask me how I felt about the problem I was talking about. How I felt about it? I felt bad. She would gently probe, and ask for more specific feelings. Okay, I felt bad… and frustrated. She squinted and pursed her lips. Rifling through papers on her desk, she pulled out one and handed it to me. “This is a list of feeling words. Some people call them soul words,” she said. “I want you to write down the things that come up this week that feel bad. Only, choose some specific words from this list that feel like they more accurately represent how you feel.”

Just like that, I was handed the primer of vocab words that make a marriage work. More than that, these were the words that make an adult life work. Adults must operate in the nuanced complexities of many variables, both known and unknown. Up to that point, though I majored in English at college, I didn’t have the words to understand my feelings, and the thoughts that fueled them. I was an English major, not a Psychology major. Because I didn’t understand myself, there was no way I could understand others. There was no common language of the deep human experience between us. Thus my most important relationships suffered.

Light of Language

Why are we such mysteries to ourselves? Jordan B. Peterson says, “We act, and we wonder why.” The natural state of our brains seems to be one of oblivion, even of our own inner machinations. It is an unknown wilderness, both out there, and in here. Language shines a light into the darkness. What is known cannot become unknown. What we see cannot be unseen. Just as the Bible says of Jesus being the life and light of men, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”(John 1:5)

Why are we such mysteries to ourselves? I’m not sure. But I do know that language is the great revealer of mysteries.

God spoke. The language he used, the creative force of logos, created the world. Jesus, as both the Son of God and the Son of Man, was the Word – the logos – incarnate. John writes, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the Only Begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). There is something about Jesus that is wrapped up in language, logos, and the great revealing of mysteries to men.

Light reveals.

Language reveals.

Both make the unknown, known.

God is very interested in this revealing process as well. Which should make us sit up and take note.

Without light, we cannot see what is. Without language, we cannot interpret what is, to ourselves or anyone else.

Both give us the input and interpretive function to figure out what to do.

This is especially important when we encounter an unknown situation: when we hear a strange sound outside in the night, when a deer unexpectedly runs in front of our car, or when news breaks of a novel virus spreading across the world, and we are ordered to shelter-in-place indefinitely, while the sun shines defiantly out the window.

Lock-down

My journey with language exploded in 2020. When the lock-down measures for the Coronavirus hit, I was afraid and uncertain. Everyone was. How bad was this going to be? But as the days and weeks slipped by, something didn’t add up. We didn’t see evidence of this pandemic being as bad as advertised. We didn’t see people dying in the streets. Our friends and family weren’t terribly ill. Though thinking back, many of us got very sick earlier that winter. Hmm. Whatever this was, it didn’t seem to be as deadly as was posited. Many of us may have been exposed to it before it made headlines. None of us died. We began to notice. Our brains shifted out of emergency mode, to interpretation mode. We drew parallel lines between this logical disconnect and the story of the emperor’s new clothes that we were hearing from every major news source. Our own interpretation of the facts of the virus, and our observations may very well be contrary to the loudest experts. The emperor may very well be naked.

Start with the soul words. Look with your eyes. Pull the thread of self-inquiry until the landscape is revealed before you. This is the platform of conscientious thought.

Language is the medium for clarifying and accurately interpreting ourselves and our world. I practiced using the soul words I had learned. When the lock-down hit and the economy ground to a halt, I felt afraid. Uncertain. Indignant. Suspicious. I began to examine my own reactions to the media feed, question their sources, and formulate my own opinions and directions. I discovered how I felt anxious after scrolling through my social media feed. I distanced myself from Facebook and Instagram. I called or texted people instead. I read more broadly. I discovered thinkers, and commentators who surprisingly articulated what I was seeing with my own eyes. The time we were in quarantine afforded me the time and pressure to clarify my own values to myself. I added more words to my vocabulary in order to better interpret this new landscape.

What do we do when we encounter the unknown, the threatening, and the unstable? We use our language to shed light on what is. We open our eyes to what is in front of us. We interpret its meaning. Holding up our up our personal interpretations, we measure them against the plumb lines of Christ and and the wise counsel of loved ones. If their story squares with ours, we just may be seeing and interpreting things accurately, even against the stories the media promulgates. If not, we make adjustments and try again. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.” Proverbs 12:15

Interpret

This inquiry for truth – and the dilemma of what to do with that truth – always begins with language. Language clarifies and illuminates. Without clarity, the fear of the unknown is crushing. The fog of the unexamined and unexpressed inner-man is a slave master of terrors, base desires and appetites. Without language, you cannot order what’s inside of you in a meaningful way. This must be done first, to most accurately interpret what’s outside of you. There is an essential connection. Start with the soul words. Look with your eyes. Pull the thread of self-inquiry until the landscape is revealed before you. This is the platform of conscientious thought. We cannot deal with what should be until we deal with what is. We must ask God and loved ones for help sorting it out. If the world around us keeps us isolated from each other, either by masks and physical distancing, or heightened ideological and political debates, we must not forget our values. We must be diligent and scrupulous in our language. If conditions really are perilous, and our time here is short, for goodness sake, say what you mean. You must live your life in a way you can stand behind. You matter. It takes guts to say your piece with thought and concision. It takes more guts to listen to an ideological opponent with an ear to learn something new. Perhaps it takes the most guts for us to humble ourselves before the Lord, under whom we are all beholden, and speak with each other from this posture. We must chart our course, choose our words intentionally, and live our lives on purpose. As Jordan B. Peterson writes, “Be careful with what you tell yourself and others about what you have done, what you are doing, and where you are going… Courageous and truthful words will render your reality simple, pristine, well-defined and habitable.” It is the work of conscientious language to build the strongest, most habitable structures of culture. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)

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